When we first met, Peter Menzel did not strike me as a bug sucker, a maggot fancier, a spider chomper, a devourer of ants, a gobbler of grasshoppers, a nibbler of dragonflies and silkworms, or a scorpion scarfer. We were on assignment together in Kuwait, just after the Gulf War. Sabotaged oil wells were still erupting in great gouts of flaming oil, and great blue-black clouds of coalescing oil droplets drifted on the wind, so at times it felt as if we were driving our rental car through a slick purple rain.
I don't recall much of what we ate on that trip. Kuwait City was a ghost town, the electricity only worked sporadically, and we stumbled over rubble in the darkness, with a flashlight, looking for an open restaurant where foreign clean-up workers had established restaurants catering to those of us unfortunate enough to be there. Mostly, I think, we ate noodles. But, after all, it was dark, and after reading this book, I wonder about those "noodles."
I haven't had the pleasure of working with Peter since, though we've kept in touch. A man with a social conscience, he wanted to do a photo essay about the land mines strewn across half the world in the aftermath of various wars. Many innocent people are killed or maimed each year. Too many of them are children.
In Somalia, I heard, he was briefly kidnapped by warlords and had his cameras stolen. It all sounded like typical Peter Menzel stuff.
And then, I began getting bug messages from the man. He was going to the Amazon or equatorial Africa or China, because he had become fascinated with the rather exotic and not entirely explicable concept of insects as comestibles.
During this eight-year bug project, Peter traveled with Faith D'Aluisio, his wife, and her comments in this book, in contrast to Peter's, seem the very voice of reason and epicurean responsibility. The Menzel/D'Aluisio text is amusing and informative. Not only do we learn about worldwide verminous haute cuisine, we can make all kinds of amusing conclusions about the marriage of Peter and Faith.
During the same time period, I published a travel book titled "Pass the Butterworms." Now the truth is: There are no such things as butterworms. I just thought they sounded like something you might have to eat, for sustenance, in a distant and culturally unfamiliar area, the sort of place, for instance, where folks honor their dead in above-ground mummification situations.
In fact, the closest I came to butterworms was a dinner of sago beetle grubs I ate in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian western half of the island of New Guinea. The maggoty-looking delicacies are eaten in the Asmat, the world's largest swamp. My hosts were said to be headhunters and cannibals. I told them, diplomatically I thought, that sago beetle grubs were the best thing I'd ever eaten. In fact, they weren't bad. Lightly sautied, they had a delicate aroma and tasted rather like creamy snail.
I ate sago grubs out of fear and what I consider to be a kind of noble politeness. Peter Menzel, on the other hand, traveled to Asmat specifically to savor sago beetle grubs. He describes them here as tasting "bacony" and argues, privately, that mine were fried in oil that had been previously used for fish so that my experience with the delicacy was diluted.
Peter says that I haven't really experienced sago grubs until I've eaten them steamed in a sago palm leaf. In fact, the guy is adamant. Every time I talk to him, he bugs me about it.